The sound of the cuckoo, Doug Munro

Samuel Marsden: Altar Ego
Richard Quinn
Dunmore Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 9781877399350

As a New Zealand schoolboy in the 1960s, I knew the Rev Samuel Marsden (1765-1838) as the great and good man who introduced Christianity to the Maori in 1814. That is what my teachers told me and so did Condliffe’s and Airey’s Short History of New Zealand, the school history text on which a generation was reared. “Greatheart” Marsden emerges from their pages in the heroic mould. Illusions are there to be shattered, and I recall my mounting indignation at a 1964 article in New Zealand Truth which depicted “Greatheart” Marsden as the corrupt and merciless flogging parson who, as chief magistrate of the penal colony in New South Wales, exercised wanton cruelty on convicts. More than that, this “sadistic colonial magistrate” improperly amassed personal wealth as a big landowner, was a liar, and pursued a “vicious vendetta against Governor Macquarie”. And, the article went on, the Aussies were laughing at us for our gullibility in according this disgusting creature the status of “national religious hero”.

Richard Quinn is concerned that Marsden has been insufficiently denounced, and his point of reference is the 1977 biography by the late A T (Sandy) Yarwood, Samuel Marsden: The Great Survivor. According to Quinn, Yarwood “excused almost everything SM did”, and now Quinn is going to put the record straight. But this is not so much a revisionist book as a debunking one, both of its subject and of other historians.

Quinn presents his findings in the spirit of new discoveries but is not as original as he supposes. Yarwood certainly erred on the side of leniency but even his final judgment was that Marsden “had a sense of destiny and divine purpose which not only sustained him in physical danger and political controversy but drove him on to the zealot’s great error of believing that the ends justified the means.” Moreover, it has long been known that Marsden was disputatious, vindictive and grasping. Many contemporaries in New South Wales, in the words of Governor Macquarie’s biographer, “were sickened by the priest’s cruelty, his treachery, his sanctimony and his greed”.

Nor have New Zealand historians overlooked his gun-running and his mismanagement of the mission to Maori. Like their Australian counterparts, they recognise that Marsden was a complex character, that he did have strengths as well as weaknesses, that his life was punctuated with successes as well as with egregious failures. But complexity, moral or otherwise, is a quality that slips beneath Quinn’s radar. What he presents is an unremitting case for the prosecution, and his method is the evidential double standard of rejecting evidence that does not fit his case. When it comes to disputed testimony, Quinn’s tactic is to see things his own way all the time.

Much of the trouble may well stem from Quinn’s motivation for undertaking the task. As he puts it, his “bullshit detector … beeped non-stop as I researched SM and read Yarwood.” He continues: “Having left school at standard six, I felt like the small boy examining the Emperor’s new clothes …. I have been forewarned that the reaction to my work from Establishment critics and reviewers will be negative.” There is a certain defiant truculence in this statement, as if to say, “None of you will be game to criticise me or you’ll be held up as the academic snobs that you are.” My response is simply to say that one can see the point of formal training in the historical discipline. It is not only that Quinn repeatedly plays with words. The subtitle is “Altar Ego”, and phrases such as “reign of error” and “mad dogs and other Englishmen” so pepper his text that they draw attention to themselves and become their own parody. The content does not get better as the book progresses. In the epilogue, Quinn discusses whether Marsden was a psychopath:

I am no psychologist and may not label SM a psychopath. I have not. But I can read the literature and say “This looks remarkably like my bird.” I’m no ornithologist either, but I still know the sound of a cuckoo when I hear one.


The style as well as the content is sensationalist to the neglect of important issues and questions. Quinn sums up Marsden’s character as follows:

SM was inflexible. He was unable to admit that a decision was wrong and amend it, or heed the kindliest advice. His style invited confrontation. Cunning but not overly intelligent, he crashed headlong into things, personifying the saying that to a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


This description fits his own biography of “porcine” Marsden (his word) to a t. Given that he constantly berates Yarwood, it is not unfair to compare their respective biographies. Yarwood’s Samuel Marsden: The Great Survivor was hailed by reviewers as a work of major scholarship, and it remains so. Quinn’s Samuel Marsden: Altar Ego is likely to go largely unnoticed.


Doug Munro is an historian and biographer.


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